A Man Chooses, a Slave Obeys: The Mass Effect 3 Ending Debate Rages on «

So, Mass Effect 3 finally happened. It’s been a few weeks, and it finally seems like people have calmed down a little about how much they did or didn’t hate it. Don’t worry, I know that this topic is a horse that’s already been beaten into pink slurry and put in school lunches, but exactly why so many people got their respective genitalia tied in knots over this brings to mind the fairly broad topic of choices and consequences in games. Mass Effect’s ending was polarizing– where “polarizing” is a word that game directors use when they apparently mean “everyone thought it was balls” — but what that says about our expectations and how much games have changed over the last few decades is far more interesting.

If you were somehow lucky enough to miss the last three weeks of Mass Effect 3 discussion, here’s a quick synopsis.

More than anything else, choice is what differentiates games from any other medium. Readers and viewers can interpret books and films in different, personal ways, but seldom do they have the option of changing their content. In fact, the agency that games grant their players is an item on Ebert’s arbitrary list of things that disqualify videogames from being art with a capital A. To varying degrees we’re the ones who determine what our experience with a game will be, though for the most part we’re constrained to work within the lines painted by the game’s creators.

Clue Spot ArtWhether or not multiple endings disqualify Clue from being Art is an argument nobody has ever been stoned enough to bother with.

Classic arcade style games are about as simple as this gets. The one and only goal in, say, Pac-Man, is to attain a high score. Toward that end we’re given choices regarding when to eat cherries, take drugs, or run mouth first into a ghost like a fat yellow idiot. It’s an entirely deterministic game, however, and once we discover ideal patterns for each of the boards choice has been effectively removed and the only real challenge is a matter of endurance and bladder control. And then there’re fundamentally pointless games like Kirby’s Air Ride: A racing game where the player doesn’t even have to push a button to accelerate, featuring races that can be won by pressing start and putting the controller on the floor. If they made the WOPR play this thing at the end of War Games everyone would have died. Games are fun when we have choices, and boring when they don’t. Meanwhile, the ocean is kind of wet in places.

Zoidberg Spot ArtHooray! My videogames are paying attention to me!

Reacting to player choices is the lowest possible bar when we’re talking about gameplay, but much more complicated when it comes to plot and the intersection of the two. Until recently we haven’t had much of the way of influence when it comes to how a game’s story plays out, other than the choice of whether to rescue the princess or just jump down a hole and die, which probably doesn’t count. The first games to allow us to exert any influence on the plot at all were those with multiple endings. Early on these tended toward a reward for playing the game more quickly or thoroughly. If we made a point of collecting every doodad and wingwong maybe Samus would take off more of her clothes at the end. While handing out a better ending for performance or thoroughness is better than nothing, it represents the bare minimum when it comes to letting the player influence the plot, especially when there’s no logical connection between gameplay choices and the ending earned. Then again, maybe Maria runs after us at the end of Symphony of the Night because she’s way into obsessive-compulsives and just failed to mention it before.


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